Why Is The Risk Of Nuclear War More Serious Than Ever? – OpEd


It has been over a year since the war in Ukraine began, and the Russians have failed to achieve a decisive victory despite deploying their full military and logistical might.

Ceasefire attempts have repeatedly collapsed, and international agreements to reach a compromise have been disregarded by both parties. The only way to break this deadlock seems to be the escalation of the crisis. For the Russian elites, raising the stakes of the conflict may be a rational option. Since the Russian army cannot mobilize on a large scale or open a new front, and much of their military equipment has been exhausted on the battlefields, the only remaining option may be the use of tactical nuclear weapons. A weapon that could end the current stalemate and spare the Russians from a strategic defeat.

Possible scenarios to escalate the crisis

A few years ago, the Russians began to escalate the tension by sending a large number of heavy weapons, advisers, and some combat troops to assist the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk. Russia’s attack on Ukraine in 2022 marked another escalation. Moscow’s failure to achieve its objectives persuaded Putin to start a full-blown war by mobilizing more forces and launching missile strikes on Ukrainian cities and infrastructure. Now, as the war has reached a stalemate, the threat of nuclear weapons is more serious than ever. In December 2022, Putin vowed to pay any price for victory. Now, with the Russian forces unable to overcome Ukraine, and Putin still reluctant to back down, what form of escalation can help Russia break out of the war’s impasse?

Reinforcing the fronts is one option, but according to Western intelligence estimates, Russia has already deployed about 97% of its forces. More troops would require the ability to mobilize more resources in a short time, which could worsen the Russian military’s existing shortcomings in training, logistics, and leadership. Russia can keep bombing and firing missiles at Ukrainian cities, but the country’s capacity to increase its ammunition production is unclear. Currently, it seems that the country has become more reliant on other countries for ammunition and weapons, which has limited Russia’s combat and operational capabilities.

Russia could also expand the war horizontally by opening new fronts, or by reactivating the old ones. Russia, which has met resistance in the east and south of Ukraine, could launch a new assault from Belarus – perhaps with the assistance of Belarusian forces. Belarus has so far refrained from direct involvement in the war, although it has provided logistical and possibly intelligence support to Russian forces. However, this scenario does not seem very likely either, as direct intervention by Belarus could provoke a backlash from the West, or increase internal strife because a sizable portion of the Belarusian people oppose such a move.

Another option for Russia could be to create international tensions elsewhere with the aim of distracting attention from Ukraine. For example, Russia could instigate events that justify its intervention in the Baltic countries. It could take covert actions against Finland and Sweden to undermine NATO, or against Poland, which has been the main source of support and route for supplying weapons to Ukraine. These actions may be aimed at weakening NATO’s resolve and strengthening domestic opposition to supporting Ukraine. All of these actions are risky solutions and each of them could potentially put Russia on the path of confrontation with NATO. Moreover, opening new fronts would not only divert Russian resources from Ukraine but also exacerbate Russia’s obvious weaknesses.

Russia could also escalate the crisis by launching widespread and destructive cyberattacks that target critical infrastructure and systems of Ukraine and its allies, especially if they have severe physical impacts or cause casualties among people and civilians. Depending on the situation, these actions could trigger counterattacks or lead to the provision of weapons to Ukraine, which Ukraine’s allies have so far declined to offer. Russia’s limited cyberattacks have so far had little effect on Ukraine or the West. 

Nuclear bomb, the last resort?

Finally, the most dire solution for escalation is the scenario of Russia using nuclear weapons. Putin and other Russian leaders have frequently threatened to use tactical nuclear weapons, which are small nuclear warheads and delivery systems intended for use on the battlefield, or for a limited strike. They are designed to destroy enemy targets in a specific area without causing widespread radioactive fallout. The smallest tactical nuclear weapons can be one kiloton or less, while the largest ones can be as big as 100 kilotons. It is also unclear what Russia defines as a battlefield, as Russia currently makes no distinction between military and civilian targets, routinely firing shells and missiles into Ukrainian cities indiscriminately. 

According to its military doctrine, Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to an existential threat to its survival. If Russia views the annexed regions of Ukraine as part of its territory, or if it fears that losing the war would lead to its disintegration, it might rationalize the use of nuclear weapons as a last resort. This would imply that Russia is willing to unleash nuclear devastation on lands it claims as its own. In other words, if the Ukrainian forces manage to breach the Russian defensive lines in the eastern and southern provinces, Russia could face the dilemma of crossing the red line of nuclear use.

To further emphasize the nuclear threat, Putin announced on February 21 that Russia was suspending its participation in the New START treaty, which places limits on Russian-controlled ICBMs. These threats have revived for many the marginalized fears of a nuclear confrontation between the two blocs at the height of the Cold War. In response to this possibility, some analysts are very worried that Russia’s defeat and humiliation in Ukraine will ultimately leave Putin with no choice but to use nuclear weapons. Thus, they argue that handing over part of Ukraine to Russia to prevent the use of nuclear weapons is a viable option.

A conventional escalation strategy is unlikely to work for Moscow in the current situation, as it faces either impossibility or limited effectiveness, and therefore it cannot break the stalemate that threatens its interests or security in Ukraine, at least from the perspective of the Kremlin elites. Therefore, launching a preemptive nuclear strike seems inevitable, despite its dreadful consequences.

Sergey Karaganov, a prominent Russian analyst, advocates for a radical view on nuclear strategy. In an article titled \”A Hard but Inevitable Choice\”; he argues that Russia should demonstrate its readiness to launch a preemptive nuclear strike to prevent a global nuclear war. To this end, Russia should lower its nuclear threshold and consider the option of limited but controllable nuclear attacks that would create divisions among NATO members and ensure Russia’s victory in Ukraine. He suggests that the only way to deter Western countries from supporting Ukraine is to use nuclear weapons and target several countries. According to this analyst, Russia has already taken the first step towards changing its approach by deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, and the next step is to conduct preemptive nuclear strikes on European countries.

The use of nuclear weapons as a means of coercion has been a recurrent theme in the rhetoric of Russian officials, including President Putin, during the invasion of Ukraine. Although Karaganov, a member of several influential Kremlin-linked think tanks and advisory bodies, has previously advocated for the role of nuclear deterrence, his recent call for the actual deployment of nuclear weapons marks a new level of escalation. His views should not be dismissed as personal opinions, but rather as reflections of the prevailing mindset among the Russian elite, especially as the war drags on and the stalemate persists. His arguments may gain more traction as Russia faces increasing resistance from Ukraine and its Western allies.

The conventional wisdom of the Cold War era held that nuclear weapons were more effective for deterrence than coercion and that nuclear threats were more advantageous than nuclear use. However, some Russian strategists and policymakers, such as Karaganov, seem to challenge this view and advocate for a more assertive and aggressive use of nuclear weapons to achieve their objectives. This shift in perspective poses a serious risk of nuclear escalation and catastrophe, which may not be imminent but is certainly plausible. 

Greg Pence

Greg Pence is an international studies graduate of University of San Francisco.

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